Editor’s note: The following story includes a firsthand account by the author on what the experience of taking a haunt walk in downtown Athens is like. The author attended a walk on Tuesday with guide Shane Black, and this story includes the author’s experience. Some material contained within might not be suitable for young children.
Let me go ahead and address the elephant, or potentially ghost, in the room right off the bat. I do not personally believe in ghosts. I have never had a paranormal experience that could only be explained by something supernatural.
However, that does not mean that I seek to discredit anyone who does believe in ghosts or has had a paranormal experience that cannot otherwise be explained.
After all, the month of October is quite possibly my favorite time of the year. The weather is turning cooler, football is in full swing and my annual 31 days of Halloween movie/TV marathon is once again underway.
I jumped at the opportunity to attend one of the haunt walks hosted by the Athens-Limestone County Tourism Association. I love history, and I love a good ghost story. I attended Tuesday’s tour with guide Shane Black, who — like me — does not believe in ghosts but loves a good ghost story.
We walked to a few main locations around downtown. Keep in mind that all of these places are either part or a short distance from The Square. These are not derelict buildings out in the sticks by any means.
Below is my firsthand experience while taking a haunt walk. Some information may be a bit murky, but it will be explained as I recall hearing it.
Also keep in mind that I am not from Limestone County. I moved here in June, so many of the areas that readers may have already heard of are new to me.
The shrieking woman
After amassing our group of 15 for the night, Black bid us follow him to the first stop on our tour — the Vasser-Lovvorn house. You could not ask for a better location to begin a haunt walk. The building is surrounded by an old, creaky wrought-iron fence that was clearly forged in a bygone era. The house itself certainly sticks out as older than many in the surrounding area.
Black stood behind the old iron gate to the house with his antique lantern, purchased some years ago from U.G. White Mercantile, looking every bit the storyteller that he is.
He told us of previous occupants in the house, and one pretty young lady in particular who became so distraught at hearing that her loved one had passed away that she ran upstairs and hung herself.
The young lady’s family said she ran upstairs and put a piece of furniture in front of the door to prevent them from following, giving her long enough to throw a rope over a wooden beam, fashion a noose and take her life. Her family said they heard a shriek that was suddenly cut short as the rope grew taught around her neck.
Black said that Garth Lovvorn, who is one of the other tour guides one can follow on these haunt walks, lived in this house when he was younger. Lovvorn gave Black an account of once being awoken by the sound of a woman screaming that seemed to come from above him in the attic. The voice seemed to shriek before being suddenly silenced.
The next stop, just down the street, was the old town cemetery, which features several old graves. This setting was also quite appropriate for a haunt walk.
Long shadows crept across the cemetery caused by lights from surroundings houses. Crickets chirped in the night, which was just bright enough to make out the silhouette of the sidewalk when not under a city streetlight.
Black said a path used to run from the edge of the cemetery to the Vasser-Lovvorn house, and even though no one living used this path, it would inevitably be clear of any debris each morning. It is said that previous occupants of the house used that path frequently, and some think they still did until the site was filled in by an addition to another adjacent home.
Black said near the beginning of the haunt walk that trains would become a frequent obstacle while telling his stories. As if to prove his point, three trains did indeed pass through downtown while on the walk.
One of these trains halted the tour as it headed towards The Square, so Black took the opportunity to tell the group of a man named Railroad Bill.
It seems Bill was a hobo during a time when most towns sprang up around railroad depots. He liked to hop on trains in one city or another, grab some food from the dining car and then hop back off in whatever town the train had taken him to before sharing his spoils with others like himself.
Bill became somewhat infamous for his antics, and the local train company decided to begin posting guards to watch out for old Railroad Bill. The company’s efforts would not be in vain, as soon the guards caught Bill jumping on a train near Athens.
Once he realize his jig was up, Bill tried to escape capture by jumping back off the train while being pursued by guards. This time, however, Bill slipped as he tried to disembark the speeding train, and his leg slid underneath the wheels and was ripped off.
The story says Bill rolled into a ditch and quickly died from his injury. Some people over the years have reported seeing what appears to be a man crawling through a ditch in their peripheral vision or perhaps in a rearview mirror while stopped waiting on the train in downtown.
The figure is said to be Railroad Bill searching for his lost leg.
Fire on The Square
Once the train had passed, our group made its way to The Square. Black had us sit on the Limestone County Courthouse steps and face the eastern side of the area.
The Square has been popular for many years, and this story goes back approximately 100. It seems downtown Athens has a history of fires, and a store on the east side of The Square once caught fire while two people were trapped on the second floor.
Help could not reach the two men as the fire surrounded them, and those outside attempting to stall the blaze were forced to watch them as they were overwhelmed by the flames.
Ever since that incident, sometimes even to this day, Black said the occasional report will come in to the local fire department when someone claims to see fire and smoke emanating from a building on the eastern side of The Square. Sometimes the report even includes seeing two men trapped on the second story of the building being silhouetted by the blaze.
Gov. Houston still lives there
From the courthouse steps we walked to what is considered by many to be the most haunted building in Limestone County — the home of former governor George S. Houston. Houston was governor of Alabama from 1874 to 1878.
This building struck me as being different right away. It just oozed a certain spookiness as the large white walls were illuminated by floodlights that cut through the darkness.
Black said this house creeps him out. Many accounts have been made by visitors of odd occurrences within its walls.
The house is now the Houston Memorial Library, and Black said that paranormal activity is essentially part of the job for the librarians. They report events like having announcements falling off the wall or even scattered across the room.
Two construction workers helping complete a renovation told the librarians that the figure of a portly, balding man kept taking a peak from his hiding spot to see what they were up to.
Black said Houston was known to be a very particular man, and he was especially particular about his Athens home.
The workers even claimed that the light they were using in the attic of the house once went off, and a voice behind them asked what they were doing. Black said the men, who had been warned that Gov. Houston might still walk the halls of his former home, covered their faces and answered the voice that they were being careful and simply trying to make improvements to the house. With that, the light flickered back on and the peaking visits ceased.
Black said that Houston was also very particular with a grandfather clock that sat in his home. He could often be found hunched over the device fiddling with the mechanism. The clock apparently did not do a very good job of keeping time, and it was often off by a few minutes or had the wrong hour entirely.
Visitors and librarians alike still report hearing the clock chime at odd times and often with the wrong hour.
The only problem is, there is no longer a grandfather clock sitting in the Houston house. Throughout years of searching and renovations, no clock has been located anywhere within its walls. Black said that he once heard a chime himself while leading a haunt walk some years ago, a chime that sounded an awful lot like that of a grandfather clock.
The man in the photo
The final stop on this particular walk was what is known as the Jones Building West. The location on The Square is now occupied by Optimal Geo, but it has previously housed other businesses.
One such business featured a man that liked to come in early and open up the place. He would unlock the front door and get the coffee pot going before his coworkers came in for the day.
The building was undergoing renovations one year, and an old well was uncovered under one of the floorboards.
The early riser came in to work as usual one morning during the construction work. As he bent down to handle the door stop at the front door, he noticed a figure standing on the third floor of a nearby staircase leading to the second story. The employee saw the man a handful of times during the renovation, and he was always standing near the bottom of the same staircase.
The employee finally caught a good glimpse of the man during one of these encounters, and he described the figure as a man in a suit and bowler hat with a distinct mustache. He said the man in the hat looked at the employee as if he was the one out of place, not the ghostly figure.
The employee said the man simply evaporated away after that. While walking down the hallway of the employee stopped in his tracks when he came across an old photo that hung on the wall.
There in the photo of former business owners from many years ago was the same man in the bowler hat the employee had now seen multiple times on the staircase.
Black said he included a photo of the man in a book he published that includes local ghost stories like the ones covered on the walk. As far as Black knows, that photo featuring the man in the bowler hat still hangs in the same hallway to this day.
Athens-Limestone Tourism President Teresa Todd said the group has been hosting these haunt walks since 2006. They have five different tour guides that take groups to purportedly haunted places around downtown Athens.
Todd said they still have around 30 tickets left for these walks, so anyone wishing to take part in an upcoming event should call the tourism office at 256-232-5411 to inquire about times and dates.